Remote work policies aren’t always feasible for industries like manufacturing. But IIoT options are still available to keep workers safe.

In the wake of Brexit and still dealing with the Chinese-American trade war, many industrial companies anticipated 2020 to be a year of growing economic pressure.  But no one expected the global pandemic crisis.   As the virus shut down governments and changed everyday life around the world, business leaders in all industries looked for ways to continue operations while still safeguarding the health of their workers.  Many looked to remote options to facilitate these goals.

But remote work policies aren’t always feasible for industries like manufacturing that need feet on the ground to keep operations running smoothly.  IIoT options can allow for changes that will ensure better, healthier operations for this moment as well as offering up other long term benefits.

The Benefits of IIoT

As companies seek out new work configurations during this unprecedented time, some manufacturing firms have leveraged IoT technologies to facilitate remote options.   This includes allowing technicians to keep track of the state and health of on-site operations through IoT sensors and devices via remote monitoring.   Such devices transfer digitized data in real-time, allowing employees to safely monitor on-site machine health while still maintaining their social distance from those employees who must remain in place.

Moreover, intelligent algorithms can help employees maintain their social distance from one another during the work day and at shift changes by pinpointing their positions via trackable devices.  These algorithms can even restrict access to traditionally overpopulated locations such as break rooms or lunch areas to automatically sustain safe spacing.   In a world where social distancing is no longer the primary concern, the same technology can still be used to optimize workflows and provide granular data on staffing needs.  Some of the wearable devices used to provide staff location data can even perform safety functions like measuring air quality.

Additionally, IIoT can reduce costs for many businesses by decreasing the number of in-person visits required by field-service technicians, who instead may work cooperatively with on-site personnel via a remote connection to perform necessary duties.   This type of collaboration may benefit by the addition of other technologies like augmented reality integration that allows offsite experts to guide onsite workers through repairs via wearable heads up displays with integrated sensors and photocapture.  Such devices are available through companies like Epson, Microsoft, and ODG.

IIoT is also a benefit for inventory control.   In fact, a joint report from the World Economic Forum and McKinsey indicates IIoT can help industries reduce their necessary inventory levels by as much as 36 percent.  The real-time tracking of materials through the supply chain can be achieved through geotags connected to integrated communication devices.  This transparency becomes invaluable when supply chains become snagged as they have in the middle two quarters of this year.

Such transparency boosts order accuracy through enhanced communication with suppliers and buyers, leading to improved cash flow and increased revenue stability.  According to a US Bank study, even in good years 82% of business failures can be attributed to poor cash management; revenue stability this year may be a primary factor in who thrives or even survives to see 2021.

The Drawbacks of IIoT

Regardless of the advantages, there are still a number of drawbacks associated with Industry 4.0 and IIoT adoption.  These include

  • Cybersecurity risks.  More connected devices can mean more points for malicious actors to infiltrate your network.  Companies that digitize their operations must look to modern cybersecurity standards like multi-factor authentication, encryption protocols, and proper IT infrastructure to maintain a wall against outside threats.
  • Technology challenges.   Some  believe they need to rip out serviceable legacy systems in order to achieve IIoT benefits.  Not only is this untrue, there are multiple avenues available to integrate IIoT connectivity with legacy systems, including the use of parallel gateway systems, video cameras, and edge devices.
  • Human resistance.  In a year fraught with change some team members may initially balk at more modifications, deeming them to be risky and time-consuming.  This can be mitigated in part through proper communication of target initiatives and how they will be reached through IIoT implementation.
  • Cost.  Many companies are already struggling with costs vs. revenue,  so investment in IoT infrastructure at this time may seem overwhelming, especially when the benefits feel unclear.  However, operators who use good research and planning to integrate IoT technologies into their existing operations can see significant improvements in their key performance indicators including reduced production costs, decreased time to market, and increased outputs of up to 200 percent.

Conclusion

Looking forward, it’s almost certain IoT adoption will help many companies find their footing again in the post-pandemic future and power through our current uncertain economic landscape.  Those who move quickly to reform their operating model through strategic IIoT solutions will be rewarded by added resilience that should lead to an edge over competitors who continue to operate as usual.

Marla Keene is a tech writer for Automation Industrial.